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February 14, 2008
Bad Calls
The (Alleged) Recidivism of Kelvin Sampson

by John Gasaway


On Wednesday morning, Indiana University released the NCAA's "Notice of Allegations" that IU president Michael McRobbie received last Friday. In it, the NCAA alleges that IU basketball coach Kelvin Sampson not only failed to comply with the penalties assessed as a result of recruiting violations that took place during his tenure at Oklahoma, he also allegedly told investigators four separate lies last November 17. Most critically, the NCAA has accused Sampson of lying when he said the he didn't knowingly participate in any three-way calls with recruits and IU assistant coaches. Then, after last night's 68-66 loss to Wisconsin, Sampson read a statement in which he said he "never knowingly provided false or misleading information to the NCAA."

It's hard to envision a worse day for Indiana basketball. The NCAA is alleging five "major" violations, while as of this writing, the head coach is still coaching and still proclaiming his innocence. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers lost a home game to a conference opponent for the first time in almost two full years, courtesy of a wild banked-in three heaved up by Brian Butch in the game's final seconds. Indiana fans will be forgiven if they don't wish to relive February 13, 2008, anytime soon.

That Sampson and his staff stand accused of violating the terms of the NCAA's sanctions does not come as a surprise. We knew as much last October, when IU released the findings of an internal report that it submitted to the NCAA. What does come as a surprise, of course, is that Sampson allegedly misled both the NCAA's investigators and indeed Indiana University itself. I try to avoid hackneyed terms like "bombshell" whenever possible, but this might be an appropriate occasion for that particular stock phrase. Lying to the NCAA is a good way to kill a career.

What a shame that this is what we're talking about in mid-February 2008 under the heading of "Indiana basketball." What a shame that we're not talking about the current Indiana team, which features the best two players to wear the crimson and cream in more than a decade. Both D.J. White and Eric Gordon are having outstanding seasons. Both are great stories. White arrived in Bloomington as a skinny work in progress and has transcended both injuries and three careers' worth of coaching turmoil to become far and away the best player in the Big Ten, an insatiable beast on the defensive glass and a lethal scoring threat in the low post. Gordon is the answer to an Indiana fan's wildest and most improbable dream: an Indianapolis kid who carries himself like a true Hoosier (steady, unassuming, fine with his name not being on the jersey), yet is blessed with a level of talent not seen in Bloomington since the days of Isiah Thomas. Today they're both afterthoughts. What a shame.

In the wake of yesterday's news, the right noises are being made from within the IU community about due process and avoiding a rush to judgment. Working through this process with precision not only keeps Sampson employed for now, it's also in the University's best interest. The last thing Indiana wants is to be fighting a wrongful termination suit years down the line, as Ohio State did with former coach Jim O'Brien.

Nevertheless, "due process" shouldn't be conflated with reflexively freezing the status quo, though this is exactly what came out of the press conference held late yesterday afternoon by Indiana athletic director Rick Greenspan. Appearing fatigued yet oddly casual, Greenspan spoke of "digesting" the material contained in a thin boilerplate-leavened 14-page document as "the next step in the process."

A more encouraging sign for Indiana fans might have been for the press conference to be held by the actual recipient of the NCAA's letter, University president McRobbie. A clearer signal might have been sent had Sampson been placed on paid leave effective immediately, with McRobbie saying in effect: "Kelvin Sampson has every right to a thorough and impartial review of this evidence and to continue to receive a paycheck. That being said, the privilege of leading and appearing alongside the student-athletes of Indiana University has been suspended pending that review." Alas, that didn't happen, so the agonizing courtside theater--outstanding players coached by a man accused of lying to the NCAA--will, apparently, continue.

In another way, though, the status quo did change yesterday. A lot that we've been hearing this season became clearer with the release of this information. The off-the-record talk of impending NCAA doom with respect to the Indiana program has been absolutely rampant this year, not only among the media but even among the coaches. About every month for the past three months, cell phones and e-mail inboxes have repeatedly come to life with the latest "inside" information: this time for sure, Indiana is about to get it, could happen any day now. In one instance I know of, a Big Ten coach accompanied by his sports information director sat down with a TV crew for a pregame interview a few weeks ago and said to his SID: "So, did the Sampson story break this morning?" The coach's SID awkwardly shook his head and the subject was changed.

Now we know why the talk was so rampant. NCAA investigators were doubtless talking to the recipients of the allegedly impermissible calls, former IU recruits like Robbie Hummel, Scott Martin, DeJuan Blair, Demetri McCamey and others. Talking to an NCAA investigator would be memorable, and former IU recruits have current teammates and coaches, not to mention families and friends, with whom they would share memorable experiences. In retrospect, it's amazing the talk wasn't even more ubiquitous.

Be that as it may, one thing is certain. Barring the most dramatic and improbable rehabilitation of a reputation in the history of Division I coaching, we've heard the "Kel-vin Samp-son" chant in Assembly Hall for the last time. Perhaps a future Indiana coach will also have the euphoniously required four-syllable moniker. "To-ny Ben-nett"? "Ke-no Da-vis"? Watch and see.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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